Attacks on the language are rising, basically


Words are regularly invented, mangled or forced from nouns into verbs, or vice versa, writes DAVID ADAMS

IT’S OFTEN the little things in life that can get to you. Take “basically”, for instance. I cannot be alone in having grown to detest the very sound of this word. It has become so annoyingly pervasive in the spoken language, you sometimes wonder if we are now incapable of relaying even the most mundane information without employing it. As in, “Basically, I was walking down the road”, or, “Basically, he was standing there”.

Only good manners and not wanting to be thought a complete lunatic stop some of us from screaming: “There is no ‘basically’ about it. Either you were walking down the road or you weren’t, or he was standing there or he wasn’t.”

Even harder on the ear than the habit of prefacing with “basically”, is having it dropped willy-nilly into the middle of a sentence or stuck on to the end, presumably in the belief that this will add more weight to whatever is being said. As in, “I was walking down the road, basically”. Admittedly, the added annoyance may arise from hopes raised when it didn’t feature among the first few words, and then cruelly dashed when it was parachuted in later.

Personally, I blame politicians for reducing this fine little word to no more than a verbal tic. Up to every question-dodging trick in the book, they began using it as a stalling tactic by attaching it to their usual elongated “well” during media performances to kill time and create more thinking space for themselves.

At the start, it must have sounded good – or, God help us, even pseudo-intellectual – to an awful lot of people, for the habit spread like a computer virus.

If by some miracle you haven’t noticed before, try counting how many times “basically” is used during news or current affairs programmes. You’ll soon realise that virtually everyone, from presenters to interviewees, and audience members to panellists, are addicted to the dreaded “B” word. And that’s before we begin to consider how often we come across it in everyday conversation. Inappropriate overuse has eventually brought this word to its knees.

It is now entirely without meaning, there only to bulk out a sentence, or, sometimes, I suspect, to annoy people like me.

Sadly, we can never take “basically” seriously again.

Talking of taking things seriously, of politicians and their use or misuse of language, I’ve noticed lately Gerry Adams has been making his own rather clunky contributions to the lexicon.

While taking me to task here recently for not noticing how tirelessly he works for the unionists within his constituency (though, in my defence, his unionist constituents haven’t noticed his sterling efforts either), he referred to Sinn Féin’s “united Irelanding”. The other day he talked in an interview about “physical forcism”.

Adams has probably picked up this habit of willy-nilly word creation from the internet.

With his own blog up and running, he is now an active member of the “blogosphere”. In the cyberspace he now frequently inhabits, words are regularly invented, mangled or forced against their will from nouns into verbs, or vice versa.

Gerry, it would appear, has taken to this as enthusiastically as any other blogger.

Whatever next, I wonder? Will he perhaps be accusing those questioning his continued leadership of Sinn Féin of barefaced “retirementism”?

Continuing on the theme of annoyances is it only my imagination, or is the high rising terminal (HRT) habit that some of us picked up from watching too many episodes of Neighbours and Home and Away on the wane?

HRT, as you probably know only too well, is where sentences end with an upward intonation, so that every utterance sounds like a question posed by an Australian.

I certainly hope it is on the way out. I suspect, though, I’ve only stopped noticing through being distracted by another antipodean import that appears to be gaining ground. I speak of that increasingly common opening to a usually uninvited declaration by mostly self-obsessed people of what they intend doing or saying next: “Do you know what . . . ”

It’s a pity that whoever first introduced this didn’t think to include “want to” between the “you” and the “know”. It would have provided the rest of us with a perfect opportunity to jump in with, “Not really, thanks”.

Much more serious than the teeth-grindingly annoying fads that continually plague spoken English is the increasing threat to the written form by poor spelling, atrocious grammar and appalling punctuation.

It would be a brave writer who would tackle this subject, and I am not that person. The words “hoist” and “petard” spring readily to mind. I would only gently point out that “rein” and “reign” mean entirely different things, as do “cite” and “sight”, and “there”, “their” and “they’re”.

It is disconcerting to see these and other words that sound the same but have different meanings so often confused, even in some of our best newspapers (though, thankfully, not in this one).

Neither is there such a thing as “pigeon English”, which I saw mentioned recently, unless it’s the kind that has “basically” propping up every other sentence.